Ep 79 – CC Polygamy Pt2 Joseph Smith
On this episode, we jump into part 2 of our dive into the history of polygamy, and we’re going to focus in on Joseph Smith and Mormonism specifically. For ease of listening we break this episode into three separate segments (The Entered Apprentice, The Fellowcraft, The Master).
Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo
Joseph Smith: Making of a Prophet
Eber Howe Mormonism Unvailed
Fair Mormon on Eliza Winters
Hales-Vogel open exchange about Winters and Stowells
1830s Joseph Smith polygamy
Statement on Marriage 1835
Joseph Jackson Mormon Expose
Wilhelm Wyl interviews William Law
Last Testimony of Sister Emma Hale Smith Bidamon
D&C 132 original revelation
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
Voicemail Line (864)Nake-dMo (625-3366)
Today begins part 2 of our dive into the history of polygamy, and we’re going to focus in on Joseph Smith and Mormonism specifically. Before getting started, let me give you a peek behind the curtains, or into the hat, or whatever euphemism you prefer. In the past few weeks I’ve experienced a powerful reinvigoration. I’ve been picking up tidbits of Mormon polygamy for years now and have accrued just enough knowledge to feel comfortable with the topic, but as of very recently, diving much deeper into this subject where I’ve only scratched the surface before, I’ve experienced a personal renaissance in my love for Mormon history. Today’s episode is the product of me gaining a much deeper grasp on a subject to which I’ve previously only had a fleeting understanding of. Right at the onset, I must apologize in advance. Every time I jumped into a single subject in compiling these notes, that subject became deeper and deeper the more I researched it, and the whole subject is incredibly fascinating. As for my apology, this episode is significantly longer than initially intended. If you’ve enjoyed our previous CC episodes and the abnormally long-form structure of them, I hope you’ll enjoy this episode just as much. For those seeking a shorter and more digestible listening experience, this episode is broken up into three simple segments (The Entered Apprentice, The Fellowcraft, The Master) with brief song intermissions marking the change from one segment to the next. Hopefully that will help with ease of consumption of the material for those of you who can’t devote multiple hours in one sitting to a single episode of a single podcast when there’s so much good content in other feeds awaiting you. The reason I didn’t break this up into separate episodes is because I wanted all the information in one place. Joseph Smith’s polygamy is a huge topic which can’t be realized or justified in one sitting, so today we’re hitting the entirety of Joseph’s life skimming over the surface and stories of some of the remarkable women who were affected by the practice. We’ll leave deeper dives into each of their stories for the historical timeline in the regular episodes. This episode serves as a primer to the rest of Nauvoo history intertwined with Mormon polygamy, and lays the groundwork for the broader practice of Mormon polygamy throughout the rest of Mormon history into modern times. Without further ado, I present my personal take on Joseph Smith’s free-love and polygamy. Enjoy!
Joseph Smith’s polygamy is always a subject of Mormon history which divides groups of people, yet entices so much fascination and study from so many angles. Beginning with the earliest efforts of Joseph Smith III, young prophet of the Reorganized church, historians have been grappling with Joseph Smith’s polygamy ever since the practice of it led to his untimely death. As with last episode, I’m not going to spend much time discussing what ought to be, to spend our time more effectively examining what simply is or has been.
Part 1: The Entered Apprentice
Often when we introduce the subject of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, it’s not long before the conversation evolves into some kind of labeling. Labeling is useful, it sums up an entire concept in a succinct word or phrase, so what labels have been thrown around about Joseph Smith’s personality and sexual profile. When most Mormons talk about Polygamy, they’ve been instructed that polygamy was introduced for the purpose of financially and emotionally supporting widows and wives of unbelievers. There were too many women and not enough men, so the Mormon forefathers engaged in polygamy for practical purposes, a male breadwinner to feed multiple families. Others will view his practices through the eyes of piety, Joseph was getting married and sealed to multiple women to ensure their salvation. What better path to salvation than being sealed to the prophet of the restoration himself? Traditional Mormon doctrine holds that everyone must trace their spiritual connection to the prophet through some means. Modernly, when a man is given the priesthood, he’s issued a card with his priesthood lineage tracing the steps his priesthood took to get to him from Joseph Smith. Women are then sealed to the men in the temple sealing ceremony, binding that wife to the priesthood and ensuring both of their places among the Mormon family in heaven. Through this lens, Joseph was a savior-polygamist, which also explains his sealings to men known as the law of adoption.
Other people aren’t quite so charitable. Some look at his practices as predatory. Some label his courtship of Helen Mar Kimball at the age of 14 as pedophilia, even though it’s wholly inaccurate. Pedophilia has a strict definition and stops being the case right around the age of pubescence, then the term Ephebophilia becomes the accurate definition. One needn’t appeal to Helen Mar Kimball alone to see predatory sexual practices by the prophet as a number of his marriages only came after incessant cajoling from authority figures, other wives, and even from Joseph himself.
Some people like to take a softer, yet still critical, approach on Joseph Smith’s sexual and marriage practices by saying he was a product of his time. Polygamy wasn’t all that uncommon in his day and age, and we spent all part 1 discussing just how prevalent it was leading up to 19th-century American puritanical societies.
These labels we use to generalize Joseph Smith are useful for conversation purposes, but each definition is somehow lacking. The reason the labels are so compelling yet hotly disputed is there were so many examples in Joseph’s 30+ marriages that each perspective can use details from any number of them to justify the specific label they’re slapping onto Joseph.
For this very reason, personally, I’m at pains to try and construct my own way of discussing Joseph Smith’s polygamy. So much has been written, so much more has been said in dealing with the topic and I doubt that I can contribute anything new to the discussion. Let’s try a bit of a wholistic approach when viewing Joseph’s history with women. He was sealed to his first official Nauvoo polygamist wife, Louisa Beaman in April of 1841, but Joseph had a long and colorful sexual history prior to that instance.
Not much is known of Joseph’s history before he entered the public spotlight with Mormonism in 1830. Much has been written about him after 1830, especially after his death in 1844, but his own writings prior to 1829 are limited to a few letters and little else. Joseph’s later reflections on his own life prior to Mormonism are extremely biased, but often the best source we have.
To properly understand Joseph’s views on sexuality, we need to put his life in the context of Victorian America with heavily puritanical influences. People didn’t discuss sexuality publicly. Society had some fascinating taboos on the subject as a whole and society today is still overshadowed by the ignorance of human sexuality embraced by the 19th-century and societies long before. Historians are left with snatching a few catch-phrases implying what was considered sexually immoral such as “vicious habits” and “unchristian-like conduct with women,” in order to posit sexual indiscretions because these topics weren’t discussed openly.
Many people will try to excuse Joseph Smith’s conduct by saying he was a prophet, but also a man, and therefore imperfect and subject to the same temptations as every other human. While the latter part of that statement is true, it’s only due to society’s perspective and the inherent hypocrisy that Joseph’s conduct violates the former claim of piety.
Joseph’s views on sex and marriage came into conflict with society at large, which forced his dealings, which may have been deemed acceptable in a different time and society as normal, into underground clandestine enclaves of vicious whoredoms and gluttony. But Joseph was a man with attractions and vice that many men deal with in our everyday society. His views on sexuality were fluid and we can see an evolution of what he considered temptation and vicious habits morph into divinely sanctioned laws commanded by God to attain exaltation.
To examine the first inklings of Joseph’s sexuality, we need to grant the autobiographical tendencies in the first 2 books of the Book of Mormon, 1 and 2nd Nephi. This is the earliest view into his life coming from his own mind, dictated to Oliver Cowdery as scribe. A number of historians have linked autobiographical tendencies of Joseph Smith’s life in the Book of Mormon.
Dan Vogel asserts a number of documentable analogies in the Book of Mormon to the plight of the Smith family in his book Joseph Smith Making of a Prophet. From chapter 9 we read:
“It was fitting that Joseph’s book began with a family that was, in many ways, comparable to the Smith family. Both were displaced and disinherited, having left the land of their inheritance to settle in a more promising region. More importantly, both were conflicted over religion, particularly over the validity of a father’s dreams. Like Joseph’s father, Lehi received coded messages in dreams: “Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision,” he said (1 Ne. 8:2). In Lehi’s first dream, God appeared and warned him of Jerusalem’s impending destruction and instructed him to flee with his family into the wilderness (1 Ne. 1:5-15). Another of his dreams is remarkably similar to Joseph Sr.’s dream of the tree of life with the exception that Lehi’s two oldest sons, Laman and Lemuel, refused to come with him to the tree and partake of its fruit (1 Ne. 8). Thus, Joseph transformed his father’s dream of family unity into the reality of family division.
The account in the Book of Mormon is narrated by the youngest of Lehi’s four sons, Nephi, who like Joseph Smith becomes a zealous defender of his father’s dreams. Nephi’s two oldest brothers, Laman and Lemuel, oppose Lehi’s prophecies and ridicule his visions as “the foolish imaginations of his heart” (1 Ne. 2:11). The remaining brother, Sam, joins Nephi in supporting the father. Sariah, Lehi’s wife, experiences a brief period of doubt in which she “complained against” Lehi and derogatorily called him “a visionary man” (5:2). Eventually she is convinced of the truthfulness of her husband’s dreams (vv. 7-8). In Lehi’s dream, she joins him at the tree of life (8:14-16). At this point, Sariah disappears from the Book of Mormon narrative. Unlike Lehi, her death goes unreported.
The parallels to the Smith family are not seen as much in direct representations as in more subtle emotional profiles.2 Joseph’s older and younger brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, are much like Laman and Lemuel to the extent that, in Joseph’s emotional language, they “rebelled” against the authority of Joseph Sr.’s dreams and joined the Presbyterian church—even though in the Book of Mormon story both Laman and Lemuel are older than Nephi. One might see Joseph’s two older siblings, [p. 132]Hyrum and Sophronia, in the same light, the latter having also joined the Presbyterian church. Nephi and Joseph occupy the fourth position among their siblings in their respective families, although again somewhat differently. Nephi was the fourth of Lehi’s sons, but nothing is said concerning the ordering of his sisters (2 Ne. 5:6). Joseph was the fourth of Joseph Sr.’s sons only if one includes the unnamed infant who died before Alvin’s birth. At the same time, Joseph was the fourth of the living Smith children. One important difference exists in that Alvin died before the family became fractured. Regardless, Joseph’s decision to write about a family that was seriously divided over the meaning of its patriarch’s dreams is significant.”
From later in the same chapter:
“Unlike Joseph, Nephi is not silent about religious matters. There may be something of Joseph’s feelings and attitudes about his family situation in Nephi’s words and actions, emotions that Joseph may have been reluctant to express openly to his family. Nephi is closely allied with his father, Lehi, both in name and spirit; indeed, their names have a familiar sound, just as Laman’s and Lemuel’s names indicate an alliance. Nephi wants to experience the same dream that his father had of the tree of life. Before long, he excels his father in both visions and scriptural interpretations, not only expounding the meaning of his father’s vision but adding to and, more importantly, correcting his version. He becomes a second witness to his father’s gift by experiencing it himself, and not in any ambiguous terms, but in waking visions that endow his father’s testimony with even greater authority (1 Ne. 2:16; 3:1; 11:1; 15:1).”
If we stick with this theme, we find in the Book of Mormon the introduction of the daughters of Ishmael for the sons of Lehi to take as wives. To put the 7th chapter of 1st Nephi into context, we need to understand a little about the Smith family history. Sometime in 1825, Joseph Smith Sr. and some of his sons contracted to hunt for buried treasure with a man named Josiah Stowell. They commenced their digging operations on the Susquehanna river near what was then known as Harmony, Pennsylvania. For a short time, the treasure-digging group boarded with the Isaac Hale family, during which Joseph courted his wife-to-be Emma. The treasure digging venture would prove fruitless, but Joseph did acquire his first wife out of the business trip, so some might say he struck gold. From Chapter 7 of Vogel’s Making of a Prophet.
“One day, as Lucy recalled, Joseph took his parents aside to tell them his plans to [p. 88]marry Emma Hale, explaining that “he had felt so lonely ever since Alvin’s death that he had come to the conclusion of getting married if we had no objections.” He said that “he thought that no young woman that he ever was acquainted with was better calculated to render the man of her choice happy than Miss Emma Hale.” Joseph Sr. had met Emma and was delighted by the news. He suggested that his son bring the young woman home to live with them. Lucy was especially anxious to meet for the first time the young woman her son had chosen.”
Joseph’s mind was fertile soil for his own real-world experiences to flourish and grow into legendary tales of great prophet-heroes and dastardly fraternal arch enemies. From chapter 7 of the first Book of Nephi, we can possibly see a view into the competitive nature between brothers in courting the beautiful Isaac Hale daughters.
“1 And now I would that ye might know, that after my father, Lehi, had made an end of prophesying concerning his seed, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto him again, saying that it was not meet for him, Lehi, that he should take his family into the wilderness alone; but that his sons should take daughters to wife, that they might raise up seed unto the Lord in the land of promise.
2 And it came to pass that the Lord commanded him that I, Nephi, and my brethren, should again return unto the land of Jerusalem, and bring down Ishmael and his family into the wilderness.
3 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did again, with my brethren, go forth into the wilderness to go up to Jerusalem.
4 And it came to pass that we went up unto the house of Ishmael, and we did gain favor in the sight of Ishmael, insomuch that we did speak unto him the words of the Lord.
5 And it came to pass that the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his household, insomuch that they took their journey with us down into the wilderness to the tent of our father.
6 And it came to pass that as we journeyed in the wilderness, behold Laman and Lemuel, and two of the daughters of Ishmael, and the two sons of Ishmael and their families, did rebel against us; yea, against me, Nephi, and Sam, and their father, Ishmael, and his wife, and his three other daughters.
7 And it came to pass in the which rebellion, they were desirous to return unto the land of Jerusalem.
8 And now I, Nephi, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, therefore I spake unto them, saying, yea, even unto Laman and unto Lemuel: Behold ye are mine elder brethren, and how is it that ye are so hard in your hearts, and so blind in your minds, that ye have need that I, your younger brother, should speak unto you, yea, and set an example for you?
9 How is it that ye have not hearkened unto the word of the Lord?”
After that Nephi goes on to lecture all those who were rebelling. Should we grant this as artistic license based on real-world scenarios Joseph Smith experienced, we see how his older brothers reacted to his lecturing, and Nephi suffered the consequences expected of a younger brother when lecturing his stronger, older brothers, who may have overreacted to put on a show for the daughters of Ishmael. Nephi gains supernatural abilities Joseph likely dreamed of having to hold his own against his abusive older brothers.
“16 And it came to pass that when I, Nephi, had spoken these words unto my brethren, they were angry with me. And it came to pass that they did lay their hands upon me, for behold, they were exceedingly wroth, and they did bind me with cords, for they sought to take away my life, that they might leave me in the wilderness to be devoured by wild beasts.
17 But it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound.
18 And it came to pass that when I had said these words, behold, the bands were loosed from off my hands and feet, and I stood before my brethren, and I spake unto them again.
19 And it came to pass that they were angry with me again, and sought to lay hands upon me; but behold, one of the daughters of Ishmael, yea, and also her mother, and one of the sons of Ishmael, did plead with my brethren, insomuch that they did soften their hearts; and they did cease striving to take away my life.
20 And it came to pass that they were sorrowful, because of their wickedness, insomuch that they did bow down before me, and did plead with me that I would forgive them of the thing that they had done against me.
21 And it came to pass that I did frankly forgive them all that they had done, and I did exhort them that they would pray unto the Lord their God for forgiveness. And it came to pass that they did so. And after they had done praying unto the Lord we did again travel on our journey towards the tent of our father.”
One wonders if the daughter of Ishmael which came to Nephi’s rescue reflects Emma stepping in during an altercation between brothers to stop Alvin and Hiram from abusing Joseph. In a family where Joseph was less desirable than his older brothers, the competition for attention from similarly aged women must have been fierce in the Smith household. Whatever sympathy Joseph may have garnered from Emma was realized when he stole her away from the Hale home when Isaac was not present and they subsequently eloped in South Bainbridge right across the New York border in 1827.
Soon after Joseph and Emma were married, accusations arose of Joseph’s infidelity. Published in Mormonism Unvailed by Eber D. Howe in 1834 was a testimony by a neighbor of the Smiths named Levi Lewis. In it’s entirety from Mormonism Unvailed it reads as such:
“Levi Lewis states, that he has “been acquainted with Joseph Smith Jr. and Martin Harris, and that he has heard them both say, adultery was no crime. Harris said he did not blame Smith for his (Smith’s) attempt to seduce Eliza Winters &c.;”—Mr. Lewis says that he “knows Smith to be a liar;--that he saw him (Smith) intoxicated at three different times while he was composing the Book of Mormon, and also that he has heard Smith when driving oxen, use language of the greatest profanity. Mr. Lewis also testifies that he heard Smith say he (Smith) was as good as Jesus Christ;--that it was as bad to injure him as it was to injure Jesus Christ.” “With regard to the plates, Smith said God had deceived him—which was the reason he (Smith) did not show them.”
This was collected by Doctor Philastus Hurlbut when he was compiling the research to sell to Eber Howe for Mormonism Unvailed. Levi Lewis was biased against Joseph Smith and Mormonism Unvailed was the first full-length anti-Mormon publication to be published. Regardless of that, we need to deal with the claim that Joseph may have had relations with Eliza Winters soon after his marriage to Emma. A quick look on FairMormon.org provides an apologists answer.
“There are serious problems with these claims. It seems extraordinarily implausible that Joseph "admitted" that God had deceived him, and thus was not able to show the plates to anyone. Joseph insisted that he had shown the plates to people, and the Three and Eight Witnesses all published testimony to that effect. Despite apostasy and alienation from Joseph Smith, none denied that witness.
The claim to have seen Joseph drunk during the translation is entertaining. If Joseph were drunk, this only makes the production of the Book of Mormon more impressive. But, this sounds like little more than idle gossip, designed to bias readers against Joseph as a "drunkard."
A study of Joseph's letters and life from this period make it difficult to believe that Joseph would insist he was "as good as Jesus Christ." Joseph's private letters reveal him to be devout, sincere, and almost painfully aware of his dependence on God. 
Thus, three of the charges that are unmentioned by Van Wagoner are extraordinarily implausible. They are clearly efforts to simply paint Joseph in a bad light: make him into a pretend prophet who thinks he's better than Jesus, who admits to being deceived, and who gets drunk. Such a portrayal would be welcome to skeptical ears. This Joseph is ridiculous, not to be taken seriously.
We can now consider the claim that Martin and Joseph claimed that adultery was no crime, and that Joseph attempted the seduction of Eliza Winters. Recent work has also uncovered Eliza Winters' identity. She was a young woman at a meeting on 1 November 1832 in Springville Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. While on a preaching mission with his brother Emer, Martin Harris announced that Eliza "has had a bastard child."
Eliza sued Martin for slander, asking for $1000 for the damage done to her "good name, fame, behavior and character" because his words "render her infamous and scandalous among her neighbors." Martin won the suit; Eliza could not prove libel, likely because she had no good character to sully. 
This new information calls the Lewis affidavit into even greater question. We are to believe that Martin, who risked and defended a libel suit for reproving Eliza for fornication, thinks that adultery is "no crime"? Eliza clearly has no reason to like Joseph and the Mormons—why did she not provide Hurlbut with an affidavit regarding Joseph's scandalous behavior? Around 1879, Eliza gave information to Frederick Mather for a book about early Mormonism. Why did she not provide testimony of Joseph's attempt to seduce her?
It seems far more likely that Eliza was known for her low morals, and
her name became associated with the Mormons in popular memory, since she
had been publicly rebuked by a Mormon preacher and lost her court suit
against him. When Levi Lewis was approached by Hurlbut for material
critical of Joseph Smith, he likely drew on this association.”
I found an open email exchange between two of the foremost Joseph Smith and polygamy scholars, Dan Vogel and Brian Hales, Hales, of course, runs Joseph Smith’s polygamy and works with the Joseph Smith papers project related to Smith’s polygamy. Here’s their back and forth and I’ll even include Hale’s superiority of “light” righteousness asserted against Vogel and Vogel’s succinct and perfect reply to the assertion:
“You may recall our discussions regarding some items in your EMD volumes (for which I give thanks for the incredible effort compiling). Despite my brief interaction with them, I detected some pretty heavy bias. You remember the Nan Hill quote that I would argue would be categorized as “dubious” by an objective reviewer, but you generously assess: “the early rumors cannot be dismissed too quickly.” And then there is the your quote: “His [Joseph Smith’s] July 1830 trial in South Bainbridge included testimony accusing him of improper conduct with two of Josiah Stowell’s daughters, Miriam and Rhoda.” We’ve talked about how there is no “testimony,” only assumption. Additionally, I would add the Eliza Winters interview which you characterized her apparent silence on the topic as “an accusation she neither confirmed nor denied,” goes well beyond the statement (and I think that it is very likely that the topic did come up and Mather didn’t like the answer).
I guess my question is whether you acknowledge any bias in these types of statements and if you do, then are you concerned? I see biases that bring me back to my first email: “If it turns out that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of the living God, then your labors and products may be deemed as perhaps the most sophisticated of all oppositional endeavors this planet ever experienced.”
Understandably, you classify my reference to “conviction” as “false confidence.” But, just to be complete, I would classify the biases in your presentations simply as “darkness” in the context of D&C 50:24: “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” This “light” is quite real to me (I wrote a book on it). Do you see my feelings about light and darkness as the result of a “frenzied mind” or as some other form of self-deception?”
Here is Vogel’s interesting reply:
“Regarding “testimony” at the 1830 trial, JS was accused of improper conduct with Stowell’s daughters, although apparently it wasn’t verified by them when they testified. I believe this is implied in JS’s telling of the event, although you require it to be explicitly stated. Is it possible that your bias prevents you from seeing the very obvious context of Stowell’s daughters being called to testify? Moreover, I used “testimony” in the sense of someone testifying, but you insisted that I produce written “testimony” and asserted that I was being deceptive. Again, JS strongly implied that his accusers were hoping to extract from Stowell’s daughters evidence of sexual impropriety. I insist that my interpretation is reasonable and not just an assumption.
My footnote to Levi Lewis’s statement about Eliza Winters mentioning her later interview and that she neither confirmed nor denied the rumor is also reasonable. It’s a simple statement, and readers needed to know that information. They can decide what it means. However, you give the speculation that the question was asked and left out because Mather didn’t like the answer, which oddly shows both your bias and willingness to go beyond the evidence.
In all honesty, I don’t see why you are so concerned about these footnotes in EMD. I see them as quite normal and expected. My biography is a different matter. It’s was intended to be more interpretive and provocative.
Your statement about what my work means in light of JS be a true prophet or fraud really doesn’t concern me. I’m trying to be as honest and fair as I can. That’s all I can do.
I regard your feelings about light and darkness as just an opinion expressed in religious terminology.
I’ll spare commenting on Vogel’s response to Hale’s assertion of interpreting facts about Smith in “light” versus “darkness” and just focus on the issue at hand, Eliza Winters. There’s no way to know if Joseph Smith and Eliza Winters had adulterous relations so soon after Smith’s marriage to Emma Hale, but the fact that the gossip or conjecture existed says volumes about Joseph’s personality and how others viewed him.
The secondary issue discussed by Vogel and Hales is the 1830 court appearance in which Joseph was put on the stand and asked about his possible relations with Josiah Stowell’s daughters, Miriam and Rhoda. Soon after the Book of Mormon was published, Joseph travelled to meet with the family of Joseph Knight Sr., in Colesville New York, where he’d earned a mischievous reputation as a counterfeiter, juggler, and disturber of the peace. Joseph was arrested and tried twice in one week. During the second trial, the court proceedings were put on hold so the daughters of Josiah Stowell could be summoned to the witness stand in order to testify about their relations with Joseph Smith.
From the Vogel HoC vol 1:65-6
“After a few more such attempts, the court was detained for a time, in order that two young women (daughters to Mr. Stoal) with whom I had at times kept company; might be sent for, in order, if possible to elicit something from them which might be made a pretext against me. The young ladies arrived and were severally examined, touching my character, and conduct in general but particularly as to my behavior towards them both in public and private, when they both bore such testimony in my favor, as left my enemies without a pretext on their account.”
From later after the second trial:
“The court finding the charges against me not sustained, I was accordingly acquitted, to the great satisfaction of my friends, and vexation of my enemies, who were still determined upon molesting me, but through the instrumentality of my new friend, the constable, I was enabled to escape them and make my way in safety to my wife’s sister’s house, where I found my wife awaiting with much anxiety the issue of those ungodly proceedings: and with her in company next day, arrived in safety at my own house.”
Joseph Smith was a bit of a pariah in many communities for his conduct. The charge specifically for which he was brought to these two trials was being a disorderly person. He’d swindled Josiah Stowell out of living expenses and business contracts related to treasure-digging, and some of the friends and family of Stowell weren’t too pleased with Smith’s conduct, and subsequently filed the suit on Stowell’s behalf.
Miriam and Rhoda Stowell as well as Eliza Winters provide some of the first examples of Smith’s affinity toward intimacy beyond status quo monogamy. Whether or not he actually had these relations or any level of intimacy with these women, the public reaction sent a signal to Joseph Smith that society wouldn’t accept his views on love and relationships. He would need to keep these practices hidden from the public eye if he was to enjoy free-love and polygamy to its fullest extent.
The first theater of Smith’s polygamous operations was during the first mission trip for the early Mormons to the Lamanites living on the western border in Missouri. Joseph called brothers Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson, and Peter Whitmer to proselyte in a revelation on 17 October 1830 now canonized into D&C 28. After the missionaries had set up camp in Jackson County, Missouri, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon teamed up and converted a number of the Ohio Rigdonites to Mormonism. Subsequently, Rigdon and Smith traveled to Missouri to dedicate the plot of land as the Mormon Zion with new temple grounds. During this trip, Joseph delivered a revelation dealing with one of his detailed instructions to the missionaries there. The actual text of this revelation didn’t survive, but William Wines Phelps recounted it in 1861, 30 years after it was supposedly given. From Joseph Smiths Polygamy.org, written by Brian Hales, we find his treatment of the historicity of the claimed revelation.
“Reportedly while they were on this mission Joseph received a revelation relevant to polygamy. Some of the missionaries were to marry Native American women. In 1861, thirty years after the revelation was reportedly dictated, W. W. Phelps wrote a letter to President Young sharing the substance of the revelation.5
The details found in the revelation raise questions whether Phelps was actually recalling its content or was working from contemporaneous notes or from some other source. The statement is far too detailed for a three-day-old recollection let alone a thirty-year-old one.
That Phelps would bring this to the attention of President Young so many years after it occurred is curious and appears somewhat random as well.
Phelps ended his letter to President Young writing:
‘About three years after this was given, I asked brother Joseph [Smith, Jr.] privately, how “we,” that were mentioned in the revelation could take wives from the “natives”—as we were all married men? He replied instantly “In th[e] same manner that Abraham took Hagar and Katurah [Keturah]; and Jacob took Rachel Bilhah and Zilpah: by revelation—the saints of the Lord are always directed by revelation.’
Whatever Joseph taught at that time regarding plural marriage apparently did not make much of a stir among the early Saints who heard it because no other contemporaneous accounts are found. In addition, when the practice was started in Nauvoo, it appears that no one recalled it, and the Prophet never referenced the incident.”
Hearkening back to the Old Testament prophet’s, Joseph was able to justify the practice of polygamy in a way which wouldn’t be offensive to those practicing it. This represents Joseph’s first utterances of polygamy being sanctioned as a divine marital practice in the church, but it wouldn’t be for another decade before he began creating the ceremony and dogma surrounding the practice in Nauvoo. However, I find Hales treatment of this practice to contradict something else he covers on that same page, wherein he deals with early accusations of polygamy against the church.
“Novel religious groups were common in the 1830s. Elizabeth A. Clark and Herbert Richardson observed: “Nineteenth-century America abounded in utopian societies; as many as five hundred such communities may have flourished in this period.”7 Some experimented with marital and sexual practices, which focused suspicion on all of the groups.
Early Latter-day Saint efforts to live the law of consecration, which sustained traditional monogamy, were misunderstood. The Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, Utica, N.Y., reported in their February 5, 1831 issue: “They [the Mormons] have all things in common, and dispense with the marriage covenant.”
Henry Carroll, who was in the Kirtland area in 1832, recalled in 1885: “It was claimed all things were common, even to free love, among the Mormons at Kirtland.”8
Historian Mark Staker observed: “As late as 1835, Joseph was still trying to counter outside rumors that had apparently arisen as a result of the Morley Family and early Mormonite confusion before his arrival in Kirtland.”9
Allegations of improprieties followed the LDS Church, inciting a variety
of denials. Erastus Snow and Benjamin Winchester printed a plainly
worded denial in 1841 in An address to the citizens of Salem and
vicinity: “It has been stated in public journals that we hold all things
in common, or that we have a community of good[s], also of wives.
These charges we positively deny: for we hold no such things nor never
did. … The rules of the church forbid anything like unvirtuous conduct,
and they are righteously enforced.”
With Levi Lewis’ 1833 assertion that Martin Harris and Joseph Smith considered adultery not to be a crime, added to Joseph’s 1831 revelation that the missionaries were to take First-nation women as wives like the prophets of old, compounded by the fact that outside sources were claiming the Mormons were practicing free-love, we can begin to construct Joseph Smith’s stance on marriage as something in conflict with the Puritanical Victorian status quo of strict or serial monogamy. There is little existing evidence of Joseph practicing free-love or divinely sanctioned polygamy during the church’s infancy in Kirtland, Ohio. The only real case we can nail down for sure is Fanny Alger. Any names or situations beyond Joseph’s relationship with Alger are very challenging to substantiate.
It should be noted that the effort of historians to find a substantive quote or revelation from Joseph about polygamy prior to the 1843 revelation canonized as D&C 132 in an exercise in revisionist history. They need Joseph to have received a revelation from God about polygamy to justify his free-love relationships prior to Nauvoo for him to still fall into the category of pious prophet. Mormons need Joseph to not be an adulterer to fit the narrative they’ve constructed for him, but at the time Joseph was having multiple affairs, I doubt he cared what historians and believing Mormons more than a century in the future would think of his actions. Joseph was obviously concerned with the perceptions of his contemporaries which is why he hid his actions instead of flaunting free-love like the Onieda group, but this effort for Mormon apologists to substantiate a legitimate polygamy revelation prior to Fanny Alger is an exercise in futility. Call it what it is, Joseph liked sex and he didn’t let Victorian monogamy constrain his actions, even if he was forced to resort to predatory practices to make it happen from time to time.
Joseph’s affair with Fanny Alger made waves in Kirtland. It was widely known by many people living in Kirtland, particularly the Mormon elite, and the reaction to Smith’s impropriety is really well documented, even if the subtle details of the actual affair are a bit fuzzy.
Brian Hales acknowledges the existence of 5 documents substantiating Smith’s affair with Fanny Alger:
“Five documents indicate that Joseph Smith may have experienced conjugal relations with his first plural wife, Fanny Alger. The earliest is from Oliver Cowdery in a private letter written January 21, 1838:
I did not fail to affirm that what I had said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy scrape[“affair” overwritten] of his and Fanny Alger’s was talked over in which I strictly declared that I had never deviated from the truth on the matter.
The next reference is thirty-four years later from William McLellin:
[O]ne night she [Emma Smith] missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!! She told me this story too was verily true.”
It goes on to detail another interview by William McLellin, a quote from Wilhelm Wyl, and finally an account from first-hand witness, Benjamin Franklin Johnson written in 1903. Alger was living with the Smiths at the time of the incident. She was seen as basically a younger sister to Emma Smith, who had taken Alger under her wing to teach her homemaking skills beginning in 1832. Whether or not McLellin accurately reported Emma catching Joseph and Fanny in the middle of a sex act in the barn, the consequences of the affair are conclusive, Emma kicked Fanny out of the house who subsequently moved to Indiana and married another man named Solomon Custer who wasn’t a Mormon.
To find more detail on the Smith-Alger affair, we’re forced to reference a second-hand account from the son of Levi Hancock named Mosiah Hancock. Mosiah offers some interesting details of the relationship between Joseph and Fanny, including the reaction of Church leadership to the relationship. Corroborated by other evidence, Mosiah successfully pushes the first practice of polygamy in the church to 1832 or early 1833.
“Concerning the doctrine of celestial marriage the Prophet told my father [Levi Hancock] in the days of Kirtland, that it was the will of the Lord for His servants who were faithful to step forth in that order… My father made some things known to me concerning those days, and the part he took with the Prophet in trying to assist him to start the principle with a few chosen friends in those days. My father had required of me to bear testimony of these things at a proper time…
As early as Spring of 1832 Bro Joseph said “Brother Levi, the Lord has revealed to me that it is his will that righteous men shall take Righteous women even a plurality of Wives that a Righteous race may be sent forth uppon the Earth preparatory to the ushering in of the Millenial Reign of our Redeemer—For the Lord has such a high respect for the nobles of his kingdom that he is not willing for them to come through the Loins of a Careles People—Therefore; it behoves those who embrace the Principle to pay strict attention to even the Least requirement of our Heavenly Father.”
When we examine the details surrounding how Joseph acquired Fanny as a wife, we can see some interesting patterns in archetypal form emerge which would come strongly into play in Nauvoo polygamy. Levi Hancock was the man who supposedly performed the marriage between Joseph and Fanny, and Joseph apparently made a bargain with Levi, once again from Mosiah’s recounting of the situation. I’m reading this from Todd Compton’s book In Sacred Loneliness; The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.
“Therefore Brother Joseph said [“]Brother Levi I want to make a bargain with you—If you will get Fanny Alger for me for a wife you may have Clarissa Reed. I love Fanny” “I will” Said Father. “Go brother Levi and the Lord will prosper you” Said Joseph—Father goes to the father Samuel Alger—Father’s Brother in Law and [said] “Samuel[,] the Prophet Joseph loves your Daughter Fanny and wishes her for a wife[,] what say you[?]”—Uncle Sam Says—“Go and talk to the Old woman about it[,] twill be as She says” Father goes to his Sister and said “Clarrissy, Brother Joseph the Prophet of the most high God loves Fanny and wishes her for a wife what say you” Said She “go and talk to Fanny it will be all right with me”—Father goes to Fanny and said “Fanny[,] Brother Joseph the Prophet loves you and wishes you for a wife will you be his wife?” “I will Levi” Said She—Father takes Fanny to Joseph and said “Brother Joseph I have been successful in my mission”—Father gave her to Joseph repeating the Ceremony as Joseph repeated to him.”
Compton does a great job in unpacking everything in that account with this paragraph:
“There is much to comment on in this extraordinary passage. Very prominent is the theme of exchange of women, which anthropologists have noted in many cultures. The polygamous marriage proposal is indirect, a remarkable combination of the romantic and the non-romantic. “I love Fanny,” Smith tells Hancock, yet he does not profess his love to Fanny face to face. He uses an intermediary, a male relative, to propose to her. Despite the indirection, this is entirely consistent with Smith’s later method of approaching prospective plural wives in Nauvoo. For instance, his final proposal to Zina Huntington came through a male family member, her brother Dimick. Smith also proposed to Almera Johnson through her brother Benjamin. According to Knight family traditions, Smith himself brought a proposal from Hyrum Smith to Martha McBride Knight, Joseph’s plural wife at the time, asking for the hand of her daughter, Almira, for Hyrum…
Levi Hancock received his reward. Smith sanctioned his marriage to Clarissa Reed, which took place on March 29, 1833, when she was sixteen and he was twenty-seven.”
It’s likely that Fanny became pregnant with Joseph’s child while living with the Smiths, which signaled to Emma that Fanny was performing services beyond just house cleaning for the Prophet. According to Wilhelm Wyl quoting Chauncy Webb, “Emma was furious, and drove the girl, who was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relation with the prophet, out of her house.” This child was either, aborted, miscarried, died young, or was raised under another name. Historians are unable to verify any of those possibilities as documentation surrounding Fanny’s life after 1837 becomes elusive and unreliable.
The circumstances of Fanny’s removal from Kirtland should be taken into consideration. When the public became aware of the sexual relations between Joseph and Fanny, a number of measures were taken publicly in a futile effort of damage control. The church leadership issued a statement dealing with the church’s stance on marriage titled “Statement on Marriage,” circa August 1835. The fourth line in the provision is most interesting for two reasons. First it states that all contracts of marriage made before a person is baptized should be held sacred and fulfilled, and second it declares one man can only have one wife and vice versa.
From Joseph Smith Papers.org
“4 All legal contracts of marriage made before a person is baptized into this church, should be held sacred and fulfilled. Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again. It is not right to persuade a woman to be baptized contrary to the will of her husband, neither is it lawful to influence her to leave her husband. All children are bound by law to obey their parents; and to influence them to embrace any religious faith, or be baptized, or leave their parents without their consent, is unlawful and unjust. We believe that all persons who exercise control over their fellow beings, and prevent them from embracing the truth, will have to answer for that sin.”
Both hard tenets this proposal outlines would be contradicted later by Joseph Smith and the various church authorities in Nauvoo. Upon the introduction of polygamy in Nauvoo, Joseph took it upon himself to nullify all previous marriages, all marriages and sealings would need to be performed again to be considered valid by church officials. The second provision had already been violated by Joseph when this was issued.
After the dirty, nasty, filthy scrape, as Oliver Cowdery called it, with Fanny was public, arrangements were made for Fanny’s removal from town, but not before a church council was called to get to the bottom of things. When the council was called, a few of the leadership saw it wise to lock Fanny up in the tower of the Kirtland temple to ensure her testimony would be given. Joseph petitioned Levi Hancock to help him out of the jam because he didn’t want Fanny to take the witness stand and tell the whole church court of their sexual misdeeds.
Few considerations were given for Fanny’s emotional state at this time. She was a mere 19, had become prey for Joseph Smith’s insatiable libido, and was now faced with exile from the community pending the outcome of her testimony. Locking her in a room while the council very publicly prepared the church court must have weighed heavily on the young woman’s mind.
From Mosiah Hancock’s recounting of a story told to him by his father, Levi Hancock, I’m reading it from 36 of Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness:
“As time progressed the Apostates thought they had a good hold on Joseph because of Fanny and some of the smart? Ones Confined her in an upper room of the Temple determined that the Prophet should be settled, according to their notions. Brother Joseph came to Father and said “Brother Levi what can be done?”—There being a wagon and a dry goods Box close by and Joseph being strong and Father active[,] Father soon gained the window sill and Fanny was soon on the ground[.] Father mounts his horse with Fanny behind him and altho dark they were in New Lyme forty five miles distant—And when the worthies? Sent Fannys dinner the next day they were astonished not to be able to find her—Father by that time had returned and his animal was in the Stable.”
This may be just family tradition, folklore, if you will. Regardless of whether or not Fanny was actually locked in the temple for a few days so the brethren could hear her testimony and Joseph told Levi Hancock to bust her out, it does represent an interesting shift in Joseph’s perspective about how the public would view his liberal stance on marriage and love. He was the Prophet, but he knew there were boundaries he could cross ineloquently that the brethren wouldn’t accept and the public would decry. Moving forward, Joseph would have to be much more careful about his relationships and approach things at a more systematic level instead of just having a fling and justifying it as righteous polygamy afterwards.
Joseph’s next documentable relationship was with a woman who had a complicated and storied past, Lucinda Pendleton Morgan. Lucinda was the widow of a man named William Morgan. William Morgan had become a member of a Masonic lodge in New York in an effort to expose the secret masonic ceremonies. He ascended the three degrees over a number of years, and finally wrote his expose to be published in 1826. When word got out that he’d written the booklet and sent it to the printers for publishing, a group of Masons kidnapped him and likely killed him, which fueled the anti-Masonic fervor of the late 1820s. This was also during Andrew Jackson’s heated presidential campaign, and he was a Mason as well, so the public perception of Masons was quickly degrading to viewing them as a clandestine mafia or something. The printer published the book with a strong forward about the death of William Morgan in the following year of 1827, which revitalized the anti-masonic tensions in the burned-over district and all of New England, casting Lucinda Pendleton Morgan into the public spotlight again.
After William’s death, Lucinda married a friend of the family, George Washington Harris, and they both converted to Mormonism around October or November 1834. George W. Harris quickly climbed the ranks to being a trusted Mormon elite and by early 1838 he and Lucinda were living in Missouri set to receive the prophet and Sidney Rigdon after their midnight flight from Kirtland. From pg 49 of Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness:
“The Saints in Zion organized to give their prophet a proper welcome. On February 24, George W. Harris, Edward Partridge, and Isaac Morley were appointed to meet Smith and Sidney Rigdon with wagons and financial aid, and when Joseph and Emma arrived at Far West on March 14, Smith wrote: ‘We were immediately received under the hospitable roof of George W. Harris who treated us with all kindness possible. Here we refreshed ourselves with much satisfaction after our long and tedious journey.’ They stayed with the Harrises for some two months, then moved to their own house.
There is no firm date for Smith’s marriage to Lucinda, but these two months are a good possibility. He often married women while he was living in the same house with them, and the Sarah Pratt statement correlates with the year 1838, as well. Smith was thirty-two at the time and Lucinda was thirty-six, so he was the first of her husbands who was not an older man. George Harris may have given permission for the marriage, since he was a close friend of Smith and a church leader. He later stood proxy for Smith in the Nauvoo temple as his wife was sealed to the dead prophet for eternity. Despite the prophet’s connection to Lucinda, she would not stop living with George, as was customary in Smith’s polyandrous marriages.”
A lot of mystery surrounds Joseph and Lucinda Pendleton’s relationship, which has been later called a marriage. Joseph had learned from the public outcry with the Fanny incident which was one of many factors that removed him from Kirtland and forced the church to move to Missouri; he needed to keep his relations with women other than Emma secretive. This marks a significant issue with any relations Joseph may have had before and after Lucinda prior to 1841. The public outcry was enough to get Joseph chased from town from just one rumor. Seeing this tenor of his relationships really makes a person wonder what intimacy Joseph had that can’t and never will be documented.
This is a recurring issue with so many of these polygamous relations. Prior to celestial marriages being documented in 1841, Joseph didn’t exactly include passages in his journal of his various affairs prior to polygamy being accepted practice among the elites. We don’t see entries so blatant as to say something like, “Went to Hiram, Ohio, bedded Marinda Nancy Johnson, mob took me out of house and tarred and feathered me.” Historians wouldn’t expect to find information such as this written down. Documenting every woman Joseph ever had any relationship with, even non-sexual, becomes a challenging exercise with which hundreds of historians have wrestled for over a century.
Why don’t we take this opportunity to discuss Hiram, Ohio and Marinda Nancy Johnson for a minute? When Joseph first moved to Ohio, he began living on the Isaac Morley farm for a brief stint. After that, around late 1831, he moved to the Johnson home a few miles from Kirtland in Hiram. He and Emma spent a couple of years living in one of the bedrooms of this mansion, even by modern standards.
Joseph and Rigdon were translating the Bible at this time during dozens of séance-like sessions with a number of the brethren. In what Mormon apologists will claim was response to this blasphemy, an anti-Joseph mob formed and dragged Joseph and Rigdon from their homes, beat them, and tarred and feathered them. Among the details often lost is the fact that the mob wanted to remove Joseph’s testicles, hardly explicable with the reasoning of the mob angry about him and Rigdon rewriting the Bible. From 231 of Todd Compton’s book:
“Marinda described the event:
‘A mob, disguising themselves as black men, gathered and burst into his [Joseph’s] sleeping apartment one night, and dragged him from the bed where he was nursing a sick child. They also went to the house of Elder Rigdon, and took him out with Joseph into an orchard, where, after choking and beating them, they tarred and feathered them, and left them nearly dead…’
According to Luke Johnson, Smith was stretched on a board, then ‘they tore off the few night clothes that he had on, for the purpose of emasculating him, and had Dr. Dennison there to perform the operation. But when the Dr. saw the prophet stripped and stretched on the plan, his heart failed him, and he refused to operate.’
The motivation for this mobbing has been debated. Clark Braden, a late, antagonistic, secondhand witness, alleged in a polemic public debate that Marinda’s brother Eli led a mob against Smith because the prophet had been too intimate with Marinda [aged 16]. This tradition suggests that Smith may have married Marinda at this early time, and some circumstantial factors support such a possibility. The castration attempt might be taken as evidence that the mob felt that Joseph had committed a sexual impropriety; since the attempt is reported by Luke Johnson, there is no good reason to doubt it. Also, they had planned the operation in advance, as they brought along a doctor to perform it. The first revelations on polygamy had been received in 1831, by historian Daniel Bachman’s dating. Also, Joseph Smith did tend to marry women who had stayed at his house or in whose house he had stayed.”
Compton goes on to discuss alternate theories to explain the mobbing and the problems with Clark Braden’s secondhand account, but I find this explanation for the castration attempt to be sound reasoning and we can leave it there. It should be noted that Marinda would later marry Orson Hyde, and Joseph would marry her in Nauvoo while Hyde was on his mission to Israel in 1841-3.
Joseph having relations with teenagers before the legal age of consent seems to be a recurring theme, Ephebophilia. Another example of his magnetism and appeal to and for younger women is captured in another of Joseph’s wives-to-be when he met her in Kirtland, Mary Elizabeth Rollins. The Rollins family attended the first preaching meetings in Kirtland by Oliver Cowdery and his ilk as they were making their way for Missouri. The Mormon preachers thoroughly enticed the Rollins family and Mary specifically who was 12 years old at the time. They were baptized by Parley P. Pratt after Mary had borrowed Isaac Morley’s copy of the Book of Mormon and was captivated by its words. Once Joseph made his way to Kirtland in very early 1831, he met the Morleys and everybody living nearby or on the Morley farm, Mary was one of the people in attendance and her record survives of the first time she met Joseph Smith.
From Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness beginning page 207:
“Later, in early February 1831, Joseph Smith moved to Kirtland and visited the Gilbert home where he was surprised to see the copy of the Book of Mormon, still rare in Ohio. Newell Whitney told him the story of Mary’s intense desire to read it, and Smith asked to meet this young woman. Mary wrote, ‘I was sent for; when he saw me, he looked at me so earnestly, I felt almost afraid [and I thought, ‘He can read my every thought,’ and I thought how blue his eyes were.] after a moment, or too he came and put his hands on my head and gave me a great Blessing, (the first I ever received) and made me a present of the Book.’
A few evenings later she visited the Smith house with her mother and attended a meeting Joseph had organized. Mary sat on a plank resting on boxes. After prayer and singing, Smith talked, then suddenly stopped:
‘And his countenance Shone, and seemed almost transparent—it seems as though the solemnity of Eternity rested upon all of us…[He] seemed almost transfixed, he was looking ahead and his face outshone the candle which was on a shelf just behind him. I thought I could almost see the cheek bones, he looked as though a searchlight was inside his face and shining through every pore. I could not take my eyes from his face…’
Later she reported that Smith’s words and appearance at this time were “photographed” on her brain. She regarded this as the first time she was “sealed” to the Mormon Prophet …, though she was “sealed up to eternal life” by being “given” to Smith, their advocate with Jesus, along [with] the rest of the small congregation. Only later would “seal” come to mean “Marry” or “link” in Mormon theology.”
Mary was still 12 years old at this time. It should be noted that during many of these meetings on the Morley farm, they partook of the sacrament in their various religious ceremonies among singing and praying. If the Smith-entheogen theory holds and Joseph was spiking the sacrament with psychoactives, this was when Joseph was still tuning in the dose, set, and setting for the perfect spiritual experience. It’s understandable that this 12-year-old girl’s first experience with a charismatic spiritual leader like Joseph while everybody was hopped up on entheogens was a memorable experience for her, explaining why it was “photographed” on her mind from such an early age. During that same meeting, Martin Harris was groveling on the floor at the feet of the prophet when Joseph told everybody the savior had been walking among them and Joseph had communed face to face with Jesus. Powerful assertions, but everybody in the room was feeling the spirit and likely in a highly suggestible state of mind, and the pale countenance of the prophet was likely just as vivid for most of the people in the room. This experience is perfectly consistent with what we would expect of “consecrated” sacrament.
What Mary Elizabeth Rollins accounts do for historians, is document a trend in Joseph’s sexual practices. From the time they first met, Mary held a certain reverence and affinity for the prophet and it seems he was drawn to her in her early pubescent phase. As she matured into womanhood, Joseph would seem to never take his eyes off her, which really seems to strike some predatory tones. Joseph would later tell Mary that he was commanded in 1834 to take her as his wife, but couldn’t as she was living in Missouri a thousand miles from Kirtland. She soon married a young man aged 25 when she was 17, named Adam Lightner, a non-Mormon from Pennsylvania. Mary continued to keep the idea of being married to the prophet in her mind, and finally in early 1842, he proposed to take her as his polygamous wife.
From 211 of Compton’s book:
“By Mary’s own account, she had had spiritual presentiments that she would become Joseph Smith’s wife: ‘I had been dreaming for a number of years I was his wife. I thought I was a great sinner. I prayed to God to take it from me.’ However, the prophetic dreams were fulfilled—Smith proposed to her in early February 1842 at the home of Newel and Elizabeth Whitney. In her later life she retold the story a number of times, which allows us to construct a fascinating, detailed composite account showing how Smith approached his prospective wives. First, after he introduced the idea of plural marriage to Mary, he told her that God had instructed him to marry her in 1834, but he had been in Kirtland and she in Missouri. He said that he had been frightened of the idea at first, but, he said, as Mary remembered it, ‘The angel came to me three times between the year of ’34 and ’42 and said I was to obey that principle or he would lay [destroy] me.’
Then he made an important statement: ‘Joseph said I was his before I came here and he said all the Devils in hell should never get me from him.’ In her autobiography Mary wrote that Smith told her, ‘I was created for him before the foundation of the Earth was laid.’ So we have the doctrine of spirits matched in the pre-existence, a concept that gives important insight into Smith’s practice of polyandry. It fits him into the context of the broader ‘spiritual wife’ doctrine in the Burned-over District, in which spiritual affinities between a man and woman took precedence over legal but nonsacral marriage. Perhaps the Mormon doctrine of the pre-existence derived in part from this influence.
Smith also told Mary, ‘I know that I shall be saved in the Kingdom of God. I have the oath of God upon it and God cannot lie. All that he gives me I shall take with me for I have that authority and that power conferred upon me.’ In other words, Smith linked plural marriage with salvation, as he did in later marriages. If Mary accepted him as her husband, her place in heaven would be assured.”
There are a few interesting patterns to tease out of Joseph’s relationship with Mary. First off, he’d primed her to be open to the concept of plural marriage during her formative teenage years. He’d told her while in Nauvoo that he’d been commanded by an angel to take her to wife years before he had the courage to approach her, which coincided closely with when they first met. One skill Joseph had acquired throughout his early years was the ability to read people through body language and simple mannerisms. From the way Mary’s recounting is structured, it seems like she was attracted to Joseph from the time she was coming in to early womanhood, likely giving subconscious body language signals, upon which Joseph was capable of picking up and capitalizing.
Once Joseph decided to pursue Mary with a bit more earnest, he fabricated the claim that she was his in the pre-existence before they came to earth; she was made for him. This likely gave spiritual explanation for the chemistry they shared and made her more open-minded to the prospect of continuing to be married to Adam Lightner, while being sealed to the Prophet for eternity where marriage really mattered.
Finally, the cherry on top, Joseph told her that any woman who marries him, her place in heaven would be assured. The reason people follow a prophet is to gain eternal salvation. When that prophet provides a direct path through marriage to him, that’s a hard bargain to ignore, even if the requirement comes into conflict with Victorian era Puritanical views on sexuality and marriage.
Mary toiled with the proposition for some time.
From later in Compton’s book:
“She did not agree to the marriage at first—she was married to and presumably in love with another man, and was skeptical of Smith’s doctrine. She asked why, if an angel came to him, it had not appeared to her? She asked pointedly, wasn’t it possible that the angel was from the devil? Smith assured her that it had come from God. She replied that she would never be sealed to him until she had a direct witness from God. He told her to pray earnestly, for the angel had told him that she would have a witness. As the conversation ended, he asked her if she would turn traitor and speak of this to anyone. She replied, “I shall never tell a mortal I had such a talk from a married man!”
She was understandably troubled by this proposal. Nevertheless, she prayed about it and discussed it with the only person Smith would allow her to confide in, Brigham Young. One day she knelt between three haystacks, and, she wrote, ‘If ever a poor mortal prayed I did.’ She even prayed with her hands upraised, following the pattern of Moses. A few nights after that she was in her bedroom where her mother and aunt slept also, when, she later recounted, ‘a Personage stood in front of the Bed looking at me. Its clothes were whiter than anything I had ever seen, I could look at its Person, but when I saw its face so bright, and more beautiful than any Earthly being Could be, and those eyes pearcing me through, and through, I could not endure it, it seemed as if I must die with fear, I fell back in Bed and Covered up my head.’ As she hid under her covers, her aunt awoke and saw ‘a figure in white robes pass from our bed to my mother’s bed and pass out of the window.’”
Let’s take a second to discuss Joseph and Mary’s relationship. Joseph had picked up signals that Mary could be one of his victims for years by this point. He told her that he’d been commanded by an angel to marry her and that if she were righteous enough she would gain the same confirmation. She was under a lot of stress with this proposition and maybe other things which were going on in her life, and after days of contemplating and toiling over Joseph’s proposition, she finally had a psychological break and her mind constructed what she wanted most while she was in a sleep-deprived and drowsy state of mind. She would later approach Joseph with this story and he would claim it as the confirmation she sought and supposedly prophesied other things which would befall Mary’s family, which she claims all came true.
After years of grooming this impressionable teenage woman, and a few weeks of intense pursuit and constant bombardment of sexual advances, Joseph finally collected his prize and Mary was married to Joseph at the end of February 1842.
Of Joseph’s many wives, examples like what Mary experienced exhibit what can easily be classified as sexual predation. The term sexual grooming is very loaded and holds significant weight and explanatory power. I found an article on allure which discusses the allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by music artist R. Kelly, but it also exhibits some incredibly relevant information about the process behind grooming. The article cites clinical and forensic sexologist Eric Marlowe Garrison who’s made sexual grooming one of his main focuses of study. You’ll find a link to the article in the show notes.
“Grooming is the slow, methodical, and intentional process of manipulating a person to a point where they can be victimized,” Eric Marlowe Garrison, a sex counselor and author, tells Allure.“After [the perpetrators] find their targets, they then gain trust and move in from there.”
A few relevant extracts from the article which lists 7 details of sexual grooming people should know about.
- Anyone can be a victim:
No one is immune to grooming, though some are more susceptible than others — including minors, "because of their naiveté,” Marlowe Garrison says. “[Grooming] can occur at any age, and it has a great deal to do with gullibility, insecurity, religion, and culture. [...] It starts by targeting a vulnerable person, then building trust.
2. It often starts with friendship.
Groomers don’t jump right into abuse, which is often sexual; they begin with building a friendship. “It’ll be in a way where they get to know the [victim] well enough where they find out what they like,” Dawn Michael, PhD, a sexuality counselor, tells Allure. “Let’s say somebody is on Snapchat or...Instagram — [the offender] can pick up some of the things that [the victim] is posting. That’s why, especially for young teens or even young adults, they have to be aware of the information they’re putting out there, because someone can get this information and use it to befriend them; and that’s kind of how it starts.”
3. Perpetrators use favors and promises to build trust.
Initial friendliness typically encourages the victim to let down their guard and think of the perpetrator as a mentor, benefactor, romantic interest, or friend. And then, “once [the victim's] guard is down, the [perpetrator] will do them a favor,” Michael says. “They’ll do something for [the victim] so that the person feels indebted to them to a certain extent.”
4. Secrecy is a common characteristic of grooming.
Typically, groomers try to keep relationships with victims extremely private from the very beginning, Marlowe Garrison says. “Secrecy is developed early on for non-sexual aspects of the relationships,” he says. In his beach glass example, for instance, he says the groomer might say, “Let’s not tell anyone where you got the beach glass, because I only have but so much. If others find out about it, there won’t be any left for your growing collection!” Excuses for keeping interactions private can make victims feel flattered and special, and therefore inclined to keep these interactions secret.
5. Grooming can be difficult to distinguish from romance.
The slow process of building trust and establishing secrecy as normal can make it hard for both victims and victims' acquaintances to recognize grooming for what it is. If you feel you may be that victim, or that someone you know is, “one thing to look out for is [an] insistence to meet” on the part of the groomer, Marlowe Garrison says. “Groomers are spending a lot of time and money on building that relationship, and they can see their progress [through meetings].” Groomers' desire to see their victim exceeds the excitement that might be expected of someone in a new romantic relationship and crosses over into guilting and threats.
6. Victims can get out.
7. Family members and friends can help, but it’s important for them to tread carefully.”
The entire article is fascinating, so please chase the show notes and give it a read, but let’s examine the high points of Mary and Joseph’s relationship to see if we can check any of those boxes.
Minors are specifically susceptible to grooming due to their naivete. Mary was 12 and Joseph was 26 when they first met and their relationship developed from there.
It all started with friendship. Joseph didn’t propose to her when he first met Mary, he paid his dues to become her friend over more than a decade before he proposed, exhibiting that Joseph was in it for the long haul.
Using promises and favors to build trust. The very first thing Joseph did was give a Book of Mormon to Mary when she felt she wasn’t worthy to have her own copy. What started as an indirect gift, Mary likely saw as a great favor to her from a prophet of God, an authority figure, a gift which was her ticket to eternal salvation. What greater gift can a person give than salvation, which also came into play when Joseph promised her that his wives would have their seat reserved in the celestial kingdom.
Secrecy. Obviously, Joseph swore Mary to secrecy and she was only able to speak to Brigham Young, Joseph’s wingman, about the proposition. Keeping his proposition secret was necessary for so many obvious reasons, which Mary seemed to uphold.
Grooming is difficult to distinguish from romance. Joseph’s claims to divinity were hard to distinguish from reality when the majority of the people around him hung on to every word which spewed from his mouth as if it came straight from the mouth of God. Any subconscious grooming Joseph was putting Mary through had the veneer of divinity, even though it could likely be ascribed to sexual predation when we look back at all the details.
Victims can get out. This may have been true for Mary, had she ever realized Joseph’s real intentions and her status as a victim of grooming. Instead, she became the widow of an unwilling martyr before she came of any reasonable age to discover whether or not she was deceived. Joseph was immortalized as her ticket to exaltation, and I doubt she ever put extra thought into whether or not she had been a victim of primal sexual predation.
All in all, the example of Mary Rollins’ relationship to Joseph ticks every one of the boxes linked to signs of sexual grooming, a powerful, yet subtle, sexual predatory practice. Where this becomes increasingly more insidious is when we examine number 7 on the list, Family members and friends can help, but it’s important for them to tread carefully. Nauvoo was utterly spellbound to Joseph Smith as their pipeline to divinity. When anybody identified his sexual indiscretions and predatory abuse, they were quickly cut off from the society or treated as lesser to some extent. William Marks and Sidney Rigdon provide great examples of what happened when members of the elite were opposed to polygamy. One was nearly assassinated; the other was essentially cut off from church affairs and begrudged by Joseph for the rest of his life. Such were the consequences of trusted elites when they opposed polygamy, what would happen if Adam Lightner, the non-Mormon husband of Mary, would have spoken up about what was going on? Even if he didn’t speak publicly about it, how would that conversation go with his wife in private? He may have approached her and said that he was suspicious of Joseph Smith and didn’t agree with the relationship situation, but would Mary be willing to listen, or would her damaged psyche from years of grooming and some mix of divine Stockholm syndrome cause her to oppose any rational conversation on the subject?
The way we introduced this conversation today is by proposing some labels that fit Joseph Smith’s sexual profile. Of his dozens of wives, many examples can be cherry-picked to exhibit every label we proposed, and this example with Mary fits the bill of Joseph Smith being a practiced sexual predator, trending towards serial ephebophilia.
Look, I’m all for informed consenting adults engaging in whatever sexual or relationship situation or practice which makes them happy. If you tried to pin Mary down on her relationship with Joseph, she may very well claim she was fully informed in the situation and she was making the decision of her own free-will, but parsing truly informed and actual consent out of a one-sided sexual relationship that was the product of years of grooming and sexual predation isn’t a simple task, but it definitely doesn’t fit the criteria of informed and consensual. For many of his polygamous relationships, Joseph Smith was a sexual predator, there’s no way to get around that fact. It’s not fake news, it’s not anti-Mormon propaganda, it’s not cherry-picking facts to substantiate a false claim, Joseph Smith preyed on unsuspecting young women at impressionable times in their lives. Any court would look at this verifiable historical evidence and convict Joseph Smith for sex abuse and today he would be a registered sex offender. That’s the real human being behind who Mormons claim to be their Prophet of God.
Consistent with Joseph’s sexual predation was another one of his wives, the youngest of all he married. From the Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo article on lds.org:
“Most of those sealed to Joseph Smith were between 20 and 40 years of age at the time of their sealing to him. The oldest, Fanny Young, was 56 years old. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Joseph’s close friends Heber C. and Vilate Murray Kimball, who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday. Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens. Helen Mar Kimball spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being “for eternity alone,” suggesting that the relationship did not involve sexual relations.”
Historians have taken issue with the wording in much of this gospel topics essay, not least of which is the wording surrounding Helen Mar Kimball marrying Joseph “several months before her 15th birthday”. Guys, she was 14, just tell it how it is, 7 months shy of 15 is actually closer to 14 than it is to 15. Another issue with the LDS.org essay is that it seems to paint a picture that teen marriages were common practice in the early to mid-1800s, which isn’t true. The average age for marriage was 22 for women and 21 for men throughout most of the 19th century. Teen marriages weren’t forbidden, but they certainly weren’t average by any stretch of imagination. It should have said “Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today and 19th-century standards, was legal in that era”. Another point to take issue with, Helen Kimball called her marriage to Joseph as “for eternity alone”. Church historians have taken this as a keyword exhibiting that she wasn’t sexually involved and that the marriage was only performed for the sake of sealing Helen to Joseph in the eternities. I think this is an EXTREMELY generous interpretation and doesn’t explain why so much of Helen’s decision to marry Joseph was so heavily laden with nothing but dread and loathing. However, Joseph did die before she was 16, so he may have kept his hands off her, there’s no way to know.
Luckily for historians, Helen Kimball was a prolific writer and autobiographer. She frequently kept journals and, in spite of her fundamental disagreements with the practice of polygamy, she would later become a public advocate for its legal practice in Utah, publishing 2 pamphlets in the 1880s defending it. Helen is one of the better documented examples of Joseph’s polygamy.
Without going through the entirety of Helen Kimball’s relationship with Joseph, suffice it to say, she wasn’t so ecstatic about it. Joseph initially propositioned Vilate and Heber Kimball to take Vilate as one of his wives, to which the Kimballs reluctantly agreed. When Heber and Vilate approached the prophet and agreed to the marriage, Joseph said it was merely a test and they passed so he wouldn’t take Vilate for a wife. Instead, he wanted their 14-year-old daughter, Helen for a wife. As we progress through our timeline, when this interaction happens between Joseph and the Kimballs, we’ll discuss it, but for now the conversation can function by understanding that Helen is yet one more example of Joseph Smith’s sexual prey, regardless of whether or not they actually shared intimacy.
One aspect of polygamy in Nauvoo we can’t ignore is how much it permeated the top echelons of Mormon leadership. Gone were the days of Kirtland and Missouri polygamy where Joseph was going at it with cavalier disregard for the destruction left in his wake, he needed other trusted people in leadership positions on his side for the doctrine to be accepted and widely practiced at a systemic level. Brigham Young and Heber Kimball were some of Joseph’s greatest allies and wingmen when it came to acquiring more wives. Joseph was happy to return the favor when situations would arise.
There was a family of recent European immigrant converts when Brigham wanted to take the 17-year-old Martha Brotherton for his wife. Brigham had converted the Brotherton family during his mission in Europe over 1840-42 and had undoubtedly cultivated an attraction to young Martha during his time there. She was unsuspectingly ambushed by the three molesketeers: Joseph Smith, Heber Kimball, and Brigham Young in the upper story of the Red Brick Store. They locked Martha in a room with Brigham and later brought in Joseph to drive the marriage proposition home. Martha refused and subsequently went home and recorded the incident which was included as an affidavit in John C. Bennett’s expose of polygamy. I’ll let you, the listener, judge everything about this scenario for yourself.
H. Michael Marquardt painstakingly reconstructed the interactions in his book Rise of Mormonism, from which I’m reading this beginning on page 563:
“Going upstairs with Heber C. Kimball to the second floor of the Red Brick Store she [Martha] found Brigham Young and Joseph Smith alone. Martha was introduced to the Prophet Joseph Smith by Brigham Young. Joseph offered Martha his seat after which Smith and Heber Kimball left the room leaving Martha alone with Apostle Young. Brigham Young arose, locked the door, closed the window, and drew the curtain. He then came and sat before Martha Brotherton. The following is based on her memory of what took place that day:
B: This is our private Room, Martha.
M: Indeed, sir, I must be highly honored to be permitted to enter it.
B: Sister Martha, I want to ask you a few questions; will you answer them?
M: Yes, sir.
B: And will you promise not to mention them to anyone?
M: If it is your desire, sir, I will not.
B: And you will not think any the worse of me for it, will you, Martha?
M: No sire.
B: Well, what are your feelings toward me?
M: My feelings are just the same towards you that they ever were, sir.
B: But, to come to the point more closely, have not you an affection for me, that, were it lawful and right, you could accept of me for your husband and companion?
M: If it was lawful and right perhaps I might; but you know, sir, it is not.
B: Well, brother Joseph has had a revelation from God that it is lawful and right for a man to have two wives; for as it was in the days of Abraham, so it shall be in these last days, and whoever is the first that is willing to take up the cross will receive the greatest blessings; and if you will accept of me I will take you straight to the celestial kingdom; and if you will have me in this world, I will have you in that which is to come, and brother Joseph will marry us here today, and you can go home this evening, and your parents will not know anything about it.
M: Sir, I should not like to do anything of the kind without the permission of my parents.
B: Well, you are of age, are you not?
M: No, sir, I shall not be until the 24th of May.
B: Well, that does not make any difference. You will be of age before they know, and you need not fear. If you will take my counsel it will be well with you, for I know it to be right before God, and if there is any sin in it, I will answer for it. But brother Joseph wishes to have some talk with you on the subject, he will explain things, will you hear him?
M: I do not mind.
B: Well, I want you to say something.
M: I want time to think about it.
B: Well, I will have a kiss any how.”
After that Brigham brought Joseph in as the wingman to seal the deal.
“B2J: Well, sister Martha would be willing if she knew it was lawful and right before God.
J: Well, Martha, it is lawful and right before God. I know it is. Look here, don’t you believe in me? Well Martha, just go ahead and do as Brigham wants you to, he is the best man in the world except me.
B: Oh then you are as good.
B: Well, we believe Joseph to be a Prophet. I have known him near eight years, and always found him the same.
J: Yes, and I know that this is lawful and right before God; and if there is any sin in it I will answer for it before God, and I have the keys of the kingdom, and whatever I bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever I loose on earth is loosed in heaven; and if you will accept of Brigham, you shall be blessed. God shall bless you, and my blessing shall rest upon you, and if you will be led by him you will do well; for I know Brigham will take care of you, and if he don’t do his duty to you, come to me and I will make him; and if you do not like it in a month or two, come to me and I will make you free again; and if he turns you off I will take you on.
M: Sir, it will be too late to think in a month or two after. I want time to think first.
J: Well, the old proverb is “Nothing ventured, nothing gained;” And it would be the greatest blessing that was ever bestowed upon you.
B: Yes, and you will never have reason to repent it, that is, if I do not turn from righteousness, and that I trust I never shall, for I believe God who has kept me so long will continue to keep me faithful. Did you ever see me act in any way wrong in England, Martha?
M: No, sir.
B: No, neither can any one else lay any thing to my charge.
J: Well, then, what are you afraid of? Come let me do the business for you.
M: Sir, do let me have a little time to think about it, and I will promise not to mention it to any one.
B: Well, look here, you know a fellow will never be damned for doing the best he knows how.
M: Well, then, the best way I know of, is to go home and think and pray about it.
B: Well, I shall leave it with brother Joseph, whether it would be best for you to have time or not.
J: Well, I see no harm in her having time to think, if she will not fall into temptation.
M: O, sir, there is no fear of my falling into temptation.
B: Well, you must promise me you will never mention it to any one.
M: I do promise it.
J: Well, you must promise me the same.
M: I promise.
J: Well, that will do, that is the principle we go upon. I think I can trust you, Martha.
M: Yes, I think you ought.
J: She looks as if she could keep a secret.”
I find that whole situation profoundly uncomfortable and disturbing, I’ll let you judge it and the people who put Martha in that situation for yourself.
To claim all of Joseph’s polygamist relations were the product of his sexual predation would be wholly inaccurate. We can paint a picture of Joseph as a sexual predator with a number of examples, but other examples exist among Joseph’s harem that exhibit women who seemed informed and consensual in practicing free-love with the Prophet and merely calling it marriage for the sake of public perceptions.
Truly, one of Joseph’s most fascinating wives was Eliza R. Snow, sister of the 4th prophet of the Brighamite church. Eliza was a poet born in 1804, and stands heads and shoulders above her contemporaries as being incredibly bright and witty. She was also a powerful feminist and female’s ally in Nauvoo and especially Utah, was made the first secretary of the 1842 Relief Society, and would go on to have a very colorful life in various leadership positions throughout Utah, even dabbling in politics from time to time.
She didn’t seem particularly interested in having a relationship during her early womanhood. From page 308 of Compton’s book in Chapter 13 all about Eliza Roxcy Snow:
“Her later friend, Patty Sessions, married when she was seventeen, but Eliza, despite many opportunities for romance, remained single. Perhaps potential suitors were intimidated by her educated, strong-minded intelligence. Wells wrote, ‘Many of her friends were extremely anxious to see her well settled in life, but she was happy in herself and would not submit to any interference in this matter.’ She stands apart from nearly all of Joseph Smith’s wives in this respect, as she might have been a spinster if Smith had not married her. And despite her marriages to Smith and Brigham Young, she raised no children.”
Another example Compton includes of Eliza’s intelligence was during the Snow family’s exodus from Missouri to Illinois in December 1838 when Eliza was confronted by a member of the Missouri state militia overseeing the Mormon exodus.
“The Snows, with a company of seventy-five, left Adam-ondi-Ahman on December 10 in the bitter cold of winter. As they traveled, Eliza had an encounter with ‘one of the so-called Militia’ that gives us an example of her sharp, ironic wit. He greeted her: ‘Well, I think this will cure you of your faith. Looking him squarely in the eye, I replied, ‘No, Sir, it will take more than this to cure me of my faith.’ His countenance dropped and he responded, ‘I must confess you are a better soldier than I am.’ I passed on, thinking that, unless he was above the average of his fellows in that section, I was not complimented by his confession.”
When Eliza first heard rumors of polygamy, she claimed it was a revulsive concept to her, but once she was introduced, she really started liking the lifestyle and how much it plugged her into the elite Mormon society. From 312 of Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, I think this paragraph drives home the point that not all of Joseph’s wives were averse to the new doctrine or were acquired through means of sexual predation.
“But Eliza’s conversion [to the practice of polygamy] would go one step further: ‘As I increased in knowledge concerning the principle and design of Plural Marriage, I grew in love with it, and to-day esteem it a precious, sacred principle—necessary in the elevation and salvation of the human family—in redeeming women from the curse, and the world from corruption.’”
Eliza would later say in an interview that Emma authorized the marriage and that Eliza and Joseph’s relationship had a sexual dimension. For the sake of brevity, Eliza’s story is one that needs to be unpacked, but we won’t take the opportunity to do so today. Instead, I’m hoping to have a guest on to discuss Eliza in the future. For now, we can rest assured that Eliza was a proponent of polygamy once she was fully introduced to the concept, and would later be used as an emissary for Joseph Smith to proposition other prospective wives.
That’s one salacious aspect to point out, Joseph did convince some of his wives to manipulate other women that he wanted to take as wives. Even Eliza was first introduced to the practice of polygamy by Sarah Cleveland, who was Joseph’s wife at the time, who told Eliza all about it while they were roommates. But there are plenty of other instances where one or two of Joseph’s wives would ambush and manipulate a young woman he wanted as another wife in order to convince her that everything would be alright once she took the Prophet’s hand in celestial marriage.
We can’t possibly cover the lives and stories of over 30 women in a single sitting and say everything that needs to be said. We’ve only just scratched the surface and skimmed over the highlights of a few of Joseph’s wives in our examination today. As our timeline matures through Nauvoo, we’ll continue to highlight polygamy in all its forms as it was practiced by the select Mormon elites.
The sense of clandestine privilege many of these women enjoyed was but one more tool Joseph would utilize to his benefit. An account published right after the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage, written by one Joseph Jackson details how Joseph Smith may have used his trusted women to get some dirty work done.
You’ll find a link to Jackson’s entire expose in the show notes:
“The conversation then turned on other subjects, and Joe boasted of his feats and schemes, and how cunningly he had carried his measures. He spoke of his spiritual wives particularly, and called them "great captains," in his service to carry his design, and remarked that through them he could get any stranger's money. I asked him how he would work the matter; to which he replied, that he had only to tell certain of his spiritual wives, that such a man had been in the Missouri war, and that he should be put out of the way, and his properly and money consecrated to the use, of the church; then said he, it is d--d easy for them to got into his good graces, and to mix a white powder with his victuals, and put him out of the 'way. I then told him that he ought to give me the names of these women, as they might be of great service to me in carrying his secret measures. He then went on to give me the names of women, who he said would go to the ends of the earth for him; but I shall not in this place disclose them.”
It should be noted that the Nauvoo expositor corroborated Jackson’s writings published in the Warsaw signal prior to this being published, but there may not be any way to corroborate Joseph getting some of his wives to sleep with men and poison their drinks when he wanted them put out of the way. It’s more food for thought than anything else, but should it hold true, I find it paints a very different picture of Joseph Smith from being that of a pious religious leader seeking to do God’s will to that of a mafia boss with very little scruples about the means he would employ to achieve an end.
One resounding question Mormon historians have been toiling with for so long is where does Emma fit into all of this. I find three possibilities and the truth probably falls somewhere between the cracks left by these three. 1. Emma had no idea Joseph was practicing polygamy and was ignorant of it until the day she died, giving a generous reading to her death-bed interview. 2. Emma knew that Joseph was practicing polygamy, but didn’t like it and didn’t know the extent to which he was practicing. This leaves her death-bed interview as basically a denial, where she willfully lied about her past. Finally 3. Emma knew full well the extent Joseph was practicing polygamy, was similarly opinioned of free-love as her husband, and her death-bed denial of polygamy was merely to save face in the late Victorian era where sexuality was a starkly taboo topic of discussion.
There are ways to interpret the historical record which could substantiate all of these possible interpretations of Emma’s death-bed interview. With the most generous interpretation, where readers grant full-truth to her interview, some will postulate that Emma’s testimony confirms that Joseph never practiced polygamy, but that it was some massive conspiracy perpetrated by Brigham Young and Heber Kimball. Here’s the relevant question from article “Last Testimony of Sister Emma” published in The Saints Herald Plano Illinois 1 Oct 1879 when Joseph Smith III interviewed his mother about her life with her first husband.
“Q. What about the revelation on Polygamy? Did Joseph Smith have anything like it? What of spiritual wifery?
A. There was no revelation on either polygamy, or spiritual wives. There were some rumors of something of the sort, of which I asked my husband. He assured me that all there was of it was, that, in a chat about plural wives, he had said, ‘Well, such a system might possibly be, if everybody was agreed to it, and would behave as they should; but they would not; and, besides, it was contrary to the will of heaven.’
No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband’s death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of.”
Positing that this interview substantiates the historical model that Joseph never practiced polygamy comes directly into conflict with the rest of the historical record surrounding his life. We should view this as a mother giving an interview to her son about her husband who wanted to keep his and her own good reputation among the anti-polygamy Mormons still living in Nauvoo under the Reorganization.
There are, however, other accounts which paint a much less generous picture of Emma’s involvement in Nauvoo polygamy, putting her somewhere on the free-love spectrum or at least open-minded to the idea, and even possibly leveraging Joseph’s subservient wives to do the Smiths’ bidding in and around Nauvoo. In a conversation between Wilhelm Wyl and William Law in 1887, some interesting perspectives come from Law about his understanding of the Joseph and Emma Smith love dynamic. This may shed some light on why the Laws became so opposed to Joseph and Emma and sought to publish Joseph’s tyranny in the Nauvoo Expositor.
““Did Emma, the elect lady, come to your house and complain about Joseph?”
“No. She never came to my house for that purpose. But I met her sometimes on the street and then she used to complain, especially because of the girls whom Joseph kept in the house, devoting his attention to them. You have overrated her, she was dishonest.”
“Do you mean to say that she was so outside of the influence Joseph had over her?”
“Yes, that is exactly what I mean. Let me tell you a case that will be full proof to you. Soon after my arrive in Nauvoo the two L[awrence] girls came to the holy city, two very young girls, 15 to 17 years of age. They had been converted in Canada, were orphans and worth about $8000 in English gold. Joseph got to be appointed their Guardian, probably with the help of Dr. Bennett. He naturally put the gold in his pocket and had the Girls sealed to him. He asked me to go on his bond as a guardian, as Sidney Rigdon had done. “It is only a formality,” he said. Foolishly enough, and not yet suspecting anything, I put my name on the paper. Emma complained about Joseph’s living with the L[awrence] girls, but not very violently. It is my conviction that she was his full accomplice, that she was not a bit better than he. When I saw how things went I should have taken steps to be released of that bond, but I never thought of it. After Joseph’s death, A. W. Babbitt became guardian of the two girls. He asked Emma for a settlement about the $8000. Emma said she had nothing to do with her husband’s debts. Now Babbitt asked for the books and she gave them to him. Babbitt found that Joseph had counted an expense of about $3000 for board and clothing of the girls. Now Babbitt wanted the $5000 that was to be paid Babbitt, who was a straight, good, honest, sincere man, set about to find out property to pay the $5000 with. He could find none. Two splendid farms near Nauvoo, a big brick house, worth from $3000 to $4000, the hotel kept by Joe, a mass of vacant town lots, all were in Emma’s name, not transferred later, but transferred from the beginning. She always looked out for her part. When I saw how things stood I wrote to Babbitt to take hold of all the property left by me in Nauvoo and of all claims held by me again in people in Nauvoo. And so the debt was paid by me–Emma didn’t pay a cent.”
“What do you remember about Emma’s relations to the revelation on celestial marriage?”
“Well, I told you that she used to complain to me about Joseph’s escapades whenever she met me on the street. She spoke repeatedly about that pretended revelation. She said once: “The revelation says I must submit or be destroyed. Well, I guess I have to submit.” On another day she said: “Joe and I have settled our troubles on the basis of equal rights.” * * * Emma was a full accomplice of Joseph’s crimes. She was a large, coarse woman, as deep a woman as there was, always full of schemes and smooth as oil. They were worthy of each other, she was not a particle better than he.”
There’s a lot to parse out of that exchange, and really the whole interview, but I’ll simply let it stand on its own merits. You can find the entire thing in the show notes if you care to read it and I would highly recommend this interview by Wilhelm Wyl of William Law, it’s endlessly fascinating.
The actual revelation on Polygamy was Canonized into the 1876 D&C as Section 132. The history behind how the revelation came to be is fascinating. This is from the Joseph Smith Papers project on their entry of the polygamy revelation. The historical note reads as follows:
Clayton served as scribe for the revelation, which, according to Clayton, explained “the order of the priesthood,” including “the designs in Moses, Abraham, David and Solomon having many wives & concubines &c.”
Clayton later stated that he wrote the revelation “sentence by sentence, as he [JS] dictated.” After finishing the dictation, he continued, “Joseph asked me to read it through, slowly and carefully which I did, and he pronounced it correct.”
According to Clayton’s later recollection, the impetus for the dictation of the revelation was Hyrum Smith’s request that it be written so that he could convince JS’s wife Emma Hale Smith, who did not approve of the practice of polygamy, of the revelation’s truthfulness.
After JS had dictated the revelation, Hyrum took it to Emma and, according to Clayton, received a “severe talking to” because she was “very bitter and full of resentment and anger” about plural marriage. Hyrum then brought the revelation back to JS. Clayton stated that it was read to “several of the authorities during the day,” including Newel K. Whitney, who asked that a copy be made. JS agreed, and Joseph Kingsbury, a clerk in JS’s brick store, “carefully copied” the revelation the next day. After that copy was made, according to Clayton, JS permitted Emma Smith to destroy the original copy. Clayton, however, declared in 1874 that the copy Kingsbury made was “a true and correct copy of the original in every respect” and that it had been “carefully preserved” by Whitney through the years.
Kingsbury corroborated Clayton’s account of the destruction of the original copy and his own creation of a duplicate copy for Whitney.
Using the Kingsbury copy as source text, the revelation was first published in an extra to the Deseret News on 14 September 1852, following the public announcement of plural marriage. The revelation text was included in a report of the proceedings of a “Special Conference of the Elders,” held 28–29 August 1852, at which Orson Pratt acknowledged on behalf of the church the principle of “a plurality of wives” and the active practice of plural marriage by church members. Brigham Young had Thomas Bullock read the text of the revelation to those in attendance and Bullock apparently used Kingsbury’s version to do so.
After the publication of the “Extra,” the text subsequently appeared in several church periodicals including The Seer and the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star.
It was included in the Doctrine and Covenants in 1876, and it appeared in the 1878, 1879, 1882, 1888, and 1891 editions of the Pearl of Great Price. It was first included in the Doctrine and Covenants as section 132.
The introduction to the section in the 1876 table of contents identified
it as a “Revelation on the eternity of the marriage covenant, including
plurality of wives. Given through Joseph, the seer,
Hancock County, Illinois.” In 1886, Kingsbury verified the correctness
of these versions, stating that his copy “as also the original are
identically the same as that published in the present edition of the
Book of Doctrine and Covenants.”
The relevant text in D&C 132 says a number of things. It begins with discussing the prophets of old taking many wives and explicitly says from God’s first-person perspective that he commanded them to take multiple wives to raise up seed. After that we arrive at a condemnation of Emma, likely relating to the Laws or Hyrum Smith or one of the tangled webs of relationships Joseph and Emma had spun.
“32 Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved.
33 But if ye enter not into my law ye cannot receive the promise of my Father, which he made unto Abraham.
34 God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.
35 Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it…
54 And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.
55 But if she will not abide this commandment, then shall my servant Joseph do all things for her, even as he hath said; and I will bless him and multiply him and give unto him an hundred-fold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds.
56 And again, verily I say, let mine handmaid forgive my servant Joseph his trespasses; and then shall she be forgiven her trespasses, wherein she has trespassed against me; and I, the Lord thy God, will bless her, and multiply her, and make her heart to rejoice….
61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.
62 And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.”
There are reports which survived claiming when Hyrum gave Emma the revelation that she threw it in the fire, wouldn’t be surprising. By 1843, I think Emma may have been a bit fed up with Joseph’s shenanigans. The text of this revelation was circulated among the Mormon elites and used to justify taking more wives. When Joseph and Brigham locked Martha Brotherton and ambushed her in the office above the Red Brick Store, Joseph merely told her that polygamy was right with God and that if there is any sin in it he’ll be the person held responsible before God, but apparently just communicating this verbally wasn’t good enough anymore. For the necessity of having a written revelation in God speak, this revelation was used by a few select men in Nauvoo to gain more wives and justify to their wives the claim that it was a holy law delivered through the mouth of their modern-day prophet.
It’s understandable how the mind-games work here too. 19th century America was rather averse to polygamy, it was illegal in most states and at the federal level, but so is murder. When you hearken back to the story of Abraham and Isaac, Abraham knew killing his son was an immoral thing to do, but he attempted to do it anyway and God blessed him for his conviction. The could be and was used to illustrate that polygamy may not seem moral to you, but God has a plan and sometimes commands us to do things we think are wrong in order to test our conviction to his will. When you always have a God in your corner whom you speak for, you can make any immoral thing sound good. Such was the modus operandi of Joseph Smith from his earliest treasure-seeking days until his untimely assassination in 1844.
We all know how Joseph Smith’s polygamy came to a close. Eventually, Joseph would overstep his bounds with prominent public figures in Nauvoo in his greedy attempts to claim more and more wives into his harem. Joseph would proposition Sidney Rigdon’s daughter, Nancy, who would viciously reject the proposition and sew a major rift between her father and his best friend from the good ol’ days in Kirtland. In response to the situation, Rigdon would only enable Joseph’s continued consumption of more women by not speaking out publicly and decrying Joseph’s proposition to Nancy, and they would hold grudges against each other until Joseph’s death.
Joseph eventually agreed with Emma that he could take the Partridge sisters as wives as long as she was permitted to take William Law as her polyandrous husband, on the basis of equal rights as William Law called it from Emma’s own words. Joseph married the Partridge sisters and apparently reneged on his agreement with Emma, commanding her in the name of God to cleave to her husband and none other or she will be destroyed, saith the Lord. It seems Joseph may have vacillated on this conviction because he eventually proposed to Jane Law, wife of William Law to whom Emma was very attracted, and there may have been talk of some kind of wife-swap scenario. The Laws, regardless of whether or not this swapping relationship was consummated, claimed they were dedicated to each other and none else and took a stand against Joseph and Nauvoo polygamy once and for all by publishing the Nauvoo Expositor.
The paper was published exclusively by disaffected Mormon leadership who were angered with Joseph’s overreach of powers and extensive flaunting of the law. The editors and publishers are as follows:
Chauncey L. Higbee,
Robert D. Foster,
Charles A. Foster.
The expositor had one publication before it was declared a public nuisance by the Mayor of Nauvoo (Joseph Smith at the time) and the city council. The council ordered the paper and printing press used to print it destroyed and scattered in the street, an order to which the city marshal complied immediately in the dead of night in June 1844.
The preamble of the Nauvoo Expositor features explanations for why this group of individuals saw it necessary to publish the work. You’ll find a link to a pdf of it on archive.org in the show notes.
“We most solemnly and sincerely declare, God this day being witness o the truth and sincerity of our designs and statements, that happy will it be with those who examine and scan Joseph Smith’s pretensions to righteousness; and take counsel of human affairs, and of the experience of times gone by. Do not yield up tranquilly a superiority to that man which the reasonableness of past events, and the laws of our country declare to be pernicious and diabolical. We hope many items of doctrine, as now taught, some of which, however, are taught secretly, and denied openly, (which we know positively is the case,) and other, publicly, considerate men will treat with contempt; for we declare them heretical and damnable in their influence, though they find many devotees…
We are earnestly seeking to explode the vicious principles of Joseph Smith, and those who practice the same abominations and whoredoms; which we verily know are not accordant and consonant with the principles of Jesus Christ and the Apostles; and for that purpose, and with that end in view, with an eye single to the glory of God, we have dared to gird on the armor, and with God at our head, we most solemnly and sincerely declare that the sword of truth shall not depart from the thigh, nor the buckler from the arm, until we can enjoy those glorious privileges which nature’s God and our country’s laws have guarantied to us—freedom of speech, the liberty of the press, and the right to worship God as seemeth us good.—We are aware, however, that we are hazarding every earthly blessing, particularly property, and probably life itself, in striking this blow at tyranny and oppression;…”
It goes on to print a number of affidavits talking about the polygamy revelation seen by multiple firsthand witnesses and levels a number of well-substantiated accusations against Joseph Smith and the Mormon leadership.
The primary focus of the Nauvoo expositor was Joseph’s polygamy, issues he would rather keep hidden from the public eye. Once the Expositor went to print, it essentially nailed the coffin shut on Joseph, proving his sexual and moral improprieties, published by the hands of some of his fallen trusted Mormon elites.
Joseph would be labeled a tyrant in opposition to free speech and locked in the Carthage prison where he was eventually assassinated for his deeds as a direct result of his widespread practice of polygamy among many other criminal activities.
What started as Joseph’s earliest possible sexual indiscretions with Eliza Winters and the Stowell sisters during the first years of his marriage to Emma, through the small examples of flings Joseph had in Kirtland and Missouri, what evolved out of this world driven by Joseph’s libido was an entire underground network of dozens of marriages. Hundreds or possibly thousands of sexual encounters outside of what was shared between Emma to Joseph eventually became Joseph’s Achilles’ heel and felled possibly the most controversial and epic human of early American history, whose teachings and doctrines would shape the face of Western America for centuries to come.
Joseph was a visionary man in every sense of the word. He refused to be constrained to the moral dicta of the society from whence he sprang. His actions directly conflicted with the puritanical morality of strict monogamy and never discussing the bedroom or sexual desires outside of the bedroom, and flourished in a society with lax regulations and an extreme lack of education.
Applying revelations of polygamy ascribed to Joseph from the 1830s merely justifies his later actions and takes them out of the realm of adultery, putting them in a category of divine celestial marriage, somehow post-hoc excusing Joseph’s actions in Kirtland as divinely inspired when, clearly, he was just having sex with women who weren’t Emma. This is a futile attempt at applying morality to immoral actions taken by the founding father of Mormonism.
What’s most baffling to me is that Joseph could have approached sexuality differently. He could have created Mormonism as a free-love society of communitarian deists who believed they could ascend to godhood and it would be treated as such today. Constrained by the Christian societies which birthed Mormonism, free-love ran counter to what most converts would consider as God’s will and Joseph was forced to practice polygamy underneath the polished Mormon surface with hypocritical public denials of any sexual impropriety.
We shouldn’t judge anyone based on their sexual preferences or practices, we should judge them based on the content of their character. Joseph practicing polygamy and free-love was an issue because he lied about it. Had he approached it with honesty, he wouldn’t have been taken as seriously and Mormonism would probably be a silverware company today like the Oneida group. Instead, Joseph was pining for converts and did what he thought was best to not offend the public to gain more followers, even though his public persona widely conflicted with his private preferences.
Trying to point out that his actions and lying about them are justified because we have a revelation from 1831 commanding Mormons to practice polygamy is dishonest because it ignores Joseph’s dishonesty. It doesn’t seem like he was very forthright about his intentions with his relationships, but instead spent his time speaking out about the vice of immorality while he was constantly locked in the emotional clutches of his own immoral sexuality. And when I say immoral, that’s because monogamy being the only legal form of marriage was merely a product of Joseph’s culture. Had Joseph been born in a different time and place in a vastly different culture, he may have been able to be more open about free-love. But had he sold a platform of free-love to his own time and culture, Mormonism would be a wacky fringe religion practiced by some obscure fundamentalist families. Instead, because of Joseph and Brigham Young’s pragmatic approach and ability to keep polygamy barely underneath the surface, they’ve grown to be a world religion with millions of adherents and billions of dollars in capital and tithing to throw around and their will. Had Joseph been honest about his intentions, Mormonism never would have flourished the way it did.
I find this subject particularly important to discuss right now. Not only have we just hit April of 1841 in our historical timeline, marking Joseph’s first polygamous marriage in Nauvoo to Louisa Beaman, but it seems like more than ever there’s been a rebirth in accusations of sex scandals and harassment in all forms sweeping popular media. Lately, it seems every day that people are being fired or indicted on allegations of sexual harassment or assault, an overall positive shift even if some of the short-term impacts seem negative at first glance. Most of these allegations are leveled against rich men in powerful positions, and I’d be willing to bet that the vast VAST majority of the allegations are true. People and society at large are very weird about sex. We see it as a commodity, a reward, a punishment, a practice, a misdeed, some versions moral, others immoral, a way to express power dynamics, a way to bind people in a relationship, a mechanism to pass DNA to the next generation, a way to relieve stress, a way to take out anger, a method to assert control. Sex does so many things for us, and in so many ways it’s used against us.
Constructing the sexual profile of a person signals other important characteristics of their personality that we should seek to understand. Joseph may have been a free-love advocate in his private life, but he was also a sexual predator in many instances, and that’s a binary personality trait. Either you’re a sex predator or you’re not, there’s really no excluded middle in that scenario. As soon as Joseph exhibits one sexually predatory practice, he fills the requirement and he can’t go back to not being a predator.
I wish that meant something to people, but instead we elect a power-hungry sexual predator to the office of President of the United States. We need a real sexual renaissance in society today, one unbound by the moral dictates of any specific religion. We need to treat sex in a way that respects everyone’s freedom of choice and opens the way for all forms of attraction, identity, and preference, but we’re still limited by the societies from whence our modernity arose.
Maybe that’s the most important takeaway. How we treat sex and our sexuality today is widely not healthy. Society has responded to the claimed morality of religiously approved sex by caving to religion’s will and accepting it as the status quo. If there’s anything we’ve learned in viewing the history of sex and relationships, the evolution of how we treat each other shows that we’ve come a long way, but I don’t know where we actually sit on the sexual egalitarianism spectrum, there’s probably no way to quantify it. Sex and marriage is arguably more equal among genders and preferences now than it ever has been before, but we’re not done evolving our societal norms surrounding sex and love yet.
We’re not so far removed from Joseph Smith’s time and place. We’re closer to Joseph than he was to the enlightenment. We can judge his character using our modern sense of morality. Mormons laude his name for communing with Jehovah, but they’re happy to ignore clear signs of Joseph being a sexual predator. What better way to paint a perfect portrait of the prophet than by ignoring the facts? It’s a powerful skill Mormons have cultivated for over a century and a half, ignoring the mortal limitations of Joseph and viewing everything he did through diamond shaped spectacles as a prophet that could do no evil. Not for me, I want the real Joseph living in my brain. I don’t want an imposter, I want the human who was born in December 1805 and died in June 1844 to exist as a living, breathing, human with all his human limitations and ambitions. That’s the real Joseph Smith.
House keeping. No NaMoHE this upcoming Monday, had to move to 11th for H2H with Dan and Mark.
Jeremy Orison questions:
Tell me about Christ’s Church.
How long have you been practicing as a member of Christ’s Church?
The focus of our discussion is obviously on fundamental practices of the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, can you tell me how Christ’s Church is different from the Brighamite LDS church?
At what point would you claim that Brigham and other sects of Mormonism broke away from the fundamentals practiced by Joseph Smith?
What kind of a following does Christ’s Church have?
Can you tell me a little about the missionary programs the Church performs?
You and a number of missionaries and members of the church presented at the 2017 July Sunstone in, SLC, can you tell me a bit about what the presentations were and how they were received?
How has the mainstream Mormon church or its adherents reacted to the existence of Christ’s Church?
Tell us a bit about the day-to-day life of a practicing member of your church? You guys don’t ride around in horse-drawn wagons with big beards as far as I’m aware, so what is it like practicing the doctrine and teachings of Christ’s Church?
I’ve taken a lot of your time today and I graciously thank you for it. Is there anything you’d like to tell the listeners as a parting thought?
Thank you for joining us today, Jeremy!
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